From Zero to Genius: The History of Measured Intelligence

The Monty Hall Problem. Stanford-Binet. MENSA. The bell curve. All purport to tell you how smart (or, for the pessimists and idiots out there, dumb) you are.

Concepts and tests of Intelligence Quotient—IQ—came about in the late 19th century and evolved from a man's pure, green envy of Charles Darwin. Darwin's cousin Sir Frances Galton was a British scientist who conceived his theories that intelligence is both hereditary and measurable out of jealousy over the attention Cousin Chuck was getting for his research on evolution.

But while Galton's tests focused on eyesight, reaction time, skin sensitivity--human attributes that could be easily evaluated—it wasn't until 1904 that IQ tests as we know them today began taking form. Alfred Binet, a French psychologist, used the concept of mental age to create a test that accurately predicted academic achievement. While not widely accepted in France, a New Jersey school teacher brought the test to the US for use with learning disabled children. Once in the States, Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman tweaked and refined Binet's work to establish the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, and the trek towards certifiable genius began.

The original Stanford-Binet test covered areas of reasoning, vocabulary, and problem solving, and determined its final score—the test taker's IQ—by dividing a person's assessed mental age by his or her actual age and multiplying the result by 100. That is, if an eight-year-old's test results showed that the child had the mental capacity of the average twelve-year-old, the 12/8x100 formula would give the child an IQ of 150.

Today, the Stanford-Binet test has been updated to better suit intelligence testing in adults, with scores exceeding 140 classified as "genius" and scores under 70, "feeble-mindedness". Other tests, including the Wechsler Scale and the Mega Test, have also entered the mainstream along with a host of lesser known and skill-specific assessments.

The Tempest Debate

Nature vs. Nurture: Even Shakespeare joined the debate in The Tempest, his 17th century play exploring the co-existence of civilized humans and savage island creatures. Are some of us smart and successful because we scored the right genes or because we scored the right people to train and push us towards greatness? Is it about the cards we're dealt or how we play them?

Most of the research available tells us that intellectual potential is largely genetically predetermined, though intellectual application and success are heavily influenced by our environment and emotional investment in honing our skills. Parents with high IQs typically have children with high IQs and vice versa, but it is also possible to increase children's IQs by ensuring they are in a stimulating environment, or decrease their IQs by depriving them.

Laszlo Polgar was a Hungarian chess teacher who believed that "geniuses are made, not born." A modest chess player himself, he set out to make his unborn children champions, even going so far as to advertise for a wife who would agree to marry him and bear his progeny for this sole purpose. Three daughters later, he has a gaggle of strong chess players, one of whom won the Budapest Chess Championship for girls under 11 at age 4.

To read more about environmental effects on IQ check out the Glenwood Slate School and Milwaukee Project studies at

Prodig(y)al Sons

Child prodigies are kids who, at 12 years old or younger, have skills comparable to those of a highly competent adult. Child prodigies almost always excel in areas of mathematics (Blaise Pascal), music (Mozart), and strategic thinking games (traditionally: chess, Bobby Fischer; today: video games, Lil Poison and Fatal1ty since these are disciplines based on structures and rules. Creative endeavors like writing and dance have produced far fewer Wunderkind since they require experience and a strength in abstract thinking that children simply haven't had enough heart beats to grasp.

Exceptions to, or perhaps amalgamations of, the concrete and creative discipline rules are fine arts child prodigies, possibly due to the fact that many of their creations are based on or stem from mathematical equations and established proportions that exist in nature. Akiane Kremarik, 13, is an internationally renowned realist painter. Dhanat Plewtianyingthawee is a mere 4 1/2 and already sells his abstract water colors throughout Thailand, as well online.

The Sperm and the Egghead

Discussions, discourse, disputes, and straight-up screaming matches vying to prove Man or Woman as the smarter sex are in constant circulation.

In 2006 a study published in Intelligence claimed to put an end to the debate using SAT test scores from a pool of 100,000 17- and 18-year-olds: by adulthood, it concluded, men generally have IQs that are 4 to 5 points higher than women's. The study maintains that this difference is not apparent in children because girls mature faster than boys, so their IQs parallel until late adolescence/early adulthood when men pull ahead.

But despite statistics and averages, the Guinness Book of World Records holder for the world's highest IQ is a woman.

Marilyn Vos Savant first took the Stanford-Binet intelligence test in 1956 at age 10. Her scores came back somewhere between 167 and 228 (information and scoring methods are conflicting; not surprisingly, Vos Savant gives the 228 number when asked) which, regardless of which side of the 40+ point gap you take, makes her an inarguable genius. The Guinness committee officially awarded her the prize of "Highest IQ" in 1986; she retained the crown until 1989 when the publication stopped including her category.

Vos Savant has gained popularity over the years not only from her stint with Guinness but also with her "Ask Marilyn" column in Parade magazine. In it, Vos Savant takes readers' questions about everything from physics to politics and solves logic and math puzzles. One of her most famous and controversial columns appeared in September 1990. The puzzle, coined the "Monty Hall Problem" after the Let's Make a Deal game show host, reads as follows:

"Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car, the others, goats. You pick a door, say #1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say #3, which has a goat. He says to you: 'Do you want to pick door #2?' Is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?" —Craig F. Whitaker, Columbia, Maryland

The common assumption is that by removing a goatless door, the host is giving you a 50/50 chance of success regardless of which of the two remaining doors you pick. But Vos Savant reasoned that by switching your choice of doors, your probability of winning a car increases to 2/3, while sticking with door #1 sticks you with a 1/3 chance. Her solution makes much more sense when you look at a visual representation of this type of problem.

The Monty Hall Problem

(It is also important to note that Vos Savant's logic presumes that the host knows what is behind the doors and always opens a losing door, rather than opening a door at random, or only offering contestants the switch if their initial guess is correct.)

High Societies

The social climbers amongst us go to the country club. The cowboys go to the NRA. The lazy go to the couch. And the intellectually elite go to Mensa or the Prometheus Society.

Mensa membership is open to anyone in the world with an IQ in the top 2% of the population. Today there are over 100,000 members who have gained access to the organization either by taking a Mensa-administered IQ test or submitting results from another approved written test. If you'd like to gauge how you would fare on Mensa's own evaluation you can take a 30-minute "warm-up" online that will give you instant feedback.

For those looking for further separation from the savages, The Prometheus Society offers membership to anyone who scores in the top 1/30,000 (yes, that's one thirty-thousandth) of the population. As of now, that is no more than 100 people, though, honestly, the low number may be due more to the cross-section of the club's membership than to a shortage of people who can meet their qualifications. The Prometheus Society also accepts minimum scores on a host of IQ tests, including certain versions of the SAT (if taken before 1995) and GRE (if taken before 1981) university admissions tests. Anyone with an SAT score of 1560 or higher or a GRE score of at least 1610 is eligible.

IQ Facts and Figures

  • International IQ charts place Hong Kong at the top of the IQ world with citizens averaging 107. South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and Singapore follow. The US ranks 18th.
  • The average IQ in America is 98. New Hampshire residents have the highest IQs, averaging 104, followed by Oregon and Massachusetts at 103. The lower figures reside in Mississippi and South Carolina, where the average IQ is 94.
  • After the last Presidential election, a study was done that indicated states with lower average IQs voted for George Bush and those with higher IQs for John Kerry.
  • 0.1% of the world's population has an IQ of 145 or above, the level required to be deemed profoundly gifted.
  • Experts have been able to compile a list of causes of mental retardation (from "mild" at IQs between 50 and 70 to "profound" at 20 or below) but are still largely uncertain about specific causes of genius.
  • According to a 2007 study, orangutans are the most intelligent non-human primate, followed by chimpanzees, spider monkeys, langurs, and macaques.
  • Chimpanzees, parrots, and dolphins typically have IQs between 35 and 49. In a human, these numbers would suggest moderate retardation.
  • Some studies show that children who are breastfed have IQs of up to 10 points higher by age 3 than children restricted to bottles.
  • According to a Danish study, people with lower IQs are at greater risk of sustaining a concussion.
  • Research has shown that US children gain about 3.5 IQ points during each year they are in school.
  • A New York City study of 1 million students discovered that removing preservatives, dyes, and artificial flavors from school lunches increased IQ test scores by 14%.